People laughed at Seymour Papert in the sixties when he talked about children using computers as instruments for learning and for enhancing creativity. The idea of an inexpensive personal computer was then science fiction. But Papert was conducting serious research in his capacity as a professor at MIT. This research led to many firsts. It was in his laboratory that children first had the chance to use the computer to write and to make graphics. Today Papert is considered the world's foremost expert on how technology can provide new ways to learn. He has carried out educational projects on every continent, some of them in remote villages in developing countries. He is a participant in developing the most influential cutting-edge opportunities for children to participate in the digital world.
In 2004, Papert addressed a conference in Sydney where he made the observation that too little time was spent in schools discussing “what constitutes fundamental?” By this he meant what is important to include in the learning opportunities that students are exposed to. He made reference to a key point – most of what is included in current curricula is the result of what can be written down in books. How relevant is this as we move at exponential pace into a world where writing on paper is not the main means of communication? Blogs, wikis, podcasts, email, social networking websites, instant messenger are all new modes of communication that no one had heard of a few years ago, let alone used. Today, sites like MySpace claim to be signing up 250,000 new users every day, and have over 200 million registered users. In addition to this, they claim that the average time spent by a user once logged in is around two hours.
A leading group of computer research scientists met in Washington, USA, in October 2006, to share their views on where they saw developments in technology moving over the coming years. In a summary of their meeting published in the New York Times and titled “Computing 2016: What Won’t be Possible”, the scientists shared their common view that the changes to science, the economy and to society that have occurred over recent years are minor compared to what will happen in the ten years ahead. Developments will impact on all areas in a far wider and deeper way than they have, and there will be significant social policy that needs to be addressed as a result of this.
This month (November), 250 delegates from 48 countries met at a conference held at Philadelphia's School of the Future, where all students have laptops, there are few books or pens, and teaching is done in multidisciplinary projects in which academic skills develop through work on real-world problems. "Education for most people doesn't promote creativity," said Sir Ken Robinson, a British educational consultant. "It actually stifles it." He cited research showing that 98% of children as young as 3 – 5 years showed divergent thinking, and that this dropped to only 10% of 15 year olds and 2% of 25 year olds.
There is a constant theme in each of these stories. Technology, in particular the personal computer, has brought unprecedented power to the user. Information is no longer the domain of books. The power of the press is no longer with the press. For the first time in history the access to information, and the ability to create and publish information, is with the individual.
We are at one of those points in history where fundamental change is taking place. Not just incremental change, but fundamental change.
Research from the USA (PEW Internet Group, 2005) is starting to show the preference for 8 – 18 year olds to get the information they want from an online source rather than in the traditional classroom or from their parents. They get information in a manner and a time frame that suits them. One reason for this is that irrespective of whether the learning style is visual, auditory or kinaesthetic, the individual can find something on the web to suit them. Technology is unique in this way – targeted carefully, it can reach any learner.
The implications and challenges to education are vast. None more so than at the “high stakes” testing we still engage in at the senior end of the school. We continue to assess knowledge in an unnatural time frame using anachronistic tools. The International Baccalaureate (IB) is currently trialing electronic assessment, and this is at least a step in the right direction. Internal (moderated) assessment is another step in the right direction, and both NCEA and IB have significant components of this. [ASIDE: it is not uncommon to hear questions regarding the use of technology in learning when assessment of learning is still carried out with pen and paper. There is no research that supports the premise that student achievement is diminished as the result of significant use of technology in the learning process. There is a growing body of research that supports the use of technology as an element in the improvement of student achievement in standardised testing. The UK is well ahead of New Zealand in the deployment of technology in state schools, and over recent years they have experienced significant increases in student achievement in all subject areas at GCSE and A level, despite their examination processes being even more formal than NZ.]
The New Zealand Digital Strategy states that “New Zealand will be a world leader in using information and technology to realise its economic, social, environmental and cultural goals, to the benefit of all its people.” (Ministry of Economic Development, 2005)
If we are to deliver on this objective at a macro (or micro) level, we have no choice but to deploy tools that will enable the student to successfully participate.
Creativity is a highly valued characteristic that employers seek in future employees according to a 2003 Victoria University study. Searches of the research literature into the use of technology in education frequently highlight creativity, problem solving and collaboration as key outcomes from successful use.
If Sir Ken Robinson is correct, if Seymour Papert is correct, and if the collective intellect of the top IT research scientists is correct then we have a duty to be pushing the boundaries of the “education system”.
We are at a place in time where change is occurring in an exponential manner. Change, by its very nature, threatens the status quo.
We must continue to ask ourselves “just what does constitute fundamental?”
It is a question that we will ask a lot more over the coming years. We are at the most exciting time in history.